Postmodern theories of leisure, consumerism and identity

Postmodern theories underline leisure and consumer activities as key sources of identity in postmodern society, contrary to identity formed by work or social class in the modern era. In his book, “Decentring Leisure,” Chris Rojek argues that leisure, often blurred with work, isn’t defined separately but in relation to other experiences. Rojek and later theorists like Scraton and Bramham agree that leisure has transformed with the advent of postmodernity – shifting from a concept of escape to self-indulgence and expression, primarily driven by consumerism and personal lifestyle.

Postmodern theories of identity stress the importance of leisure and consumerism as sources of identity. 

In postmodern society people no longer construct identities from their work, social class background or religion. Rather they construct identities through the products they choose to consume. 

Decentering Leisure 

Chris Rojek explored the changing nature of leisure in his 1995 book ‘Decentring Leisure’. He argued that if we want to understand leisure we must decentralise the concept. By this he meant that we cannot understand leisure by looking at it on its own. We must look at the experience of leisure in relation to other experiences.

Rojek argued that in postmodern society the meaning of leisure had become less clear. 

Modern societies had a relatively clear idea of what leisure was. Leisure was associated with freedom and meant escape from the constraints of limited social roles such as those from work. 

Thus in modern society leisure was not an important part of identity. Identity came from adopting social roles, mainly at work, and then leisure was a time to escape this. 

With postmodernity, the distinction between work and leisure becomes much more confused. For example:

  • Increasing numbers of people work in the leisure industry. 
  • It is easier to find enjoyment in work.
  • Some people even see work as a leisure pursuit. 

Modern societies tended to contrast the authentic with the inauthentic. They saw the authentic as superior to the inauthentic. There was also a tendency to plan leisure activities so they provided a sense of purposes for those involved. 

In postmodern societies people are less likely to seek out authentic activities. They are just as content to play computer games or hang out in virtual worlds as they are to do in real life activities. Leisure also tends to be less planned. People are more likely to just hang out and do activities for the sake of doing them. 

With postmodernisation in postmodern society leisure becomes an end in itself rather than a planned escape from working life. 

Postmodernity, Leisure and Identity 

These changes to the nature of leisure change the way people think about themselves, they change their identities. 

With postmodernity the sense of the integrated self disappears. Postmodern societies become more pluralistic in their lifestyles and identities become less rigid and more fragmented. 

For example in modern societies people saw themselves as passing through distinct stages in a lifecycle. They went from children to teenagers to young adults and middle aged. Each age group had certain leisure pursuits appropriate to it. For example, night clubs were for younger people, knitting at home was for older people. 

However in postmodern society these barriers break down. Older people are more likely to go to nightclubs, younger people are more likely to stay in and knit. 

Identity politics and leisure

Identity politics becomes more important: the ability to choose an identity unconstrained by your background. 

Leisure plays a central role in identity politics. In postmodern society you become who you are through the leisure activities you pursue. This is different to modern societies where your leisure activities reflected who you were based on your social position. 

Evaluations of Rojak 

Rojak exaggerates and simplifies the changes in leisure he claims to have taken place. Leisure in modern and postmodern societies may not be as different and clear cut as he claims. 

In postmodern society people’s ethnicities and jobs are still important sources of identity for some. 

Leisure, postmodernity and identity 

Sheila Scraton and Peter Bramham Drew on the work of E.P. Thompson to argue that Leisure was a product of modernity. With the onset of postmodernity the nature of leisure has changed. 

Before industrialisation and modernity there was no clear distinction between work and leisure. Natural cycles governed time and work and leisure activities were intermingled. 

The advent of modernity and industrialisation changed this. In the factory system workers were paid for their time. This created a strong distinction between work-time and leisure-time. 

In modern societies Fordist production techniques produced standardised goods for mass consumption.  Systematic planning was also part of modernist production. These norms of work all influenced the development of leisure. 

Modernity and leisure

graphic showing how modern society shaped modern leisure.

Organised leisure was part of the modernist project and was organised primarily around social class. 

Leisure was time left over from work which could be filled with free-time activities which supported the existing economic and political structure. 

The state and voluntary sector were involved in organising leisure activities which were supposed to benefit both the individual and society. 

However the idea of rational, planned and organised leisure began to lose influence after World War Two. 

The influence of American culture through rock and roll, the women’s movement and immigration all raised questions about homogenised leisure.

These heralded changes to leisure in postmodern society, when leisure became more diverse and fragmented. 

Postmodern Leisure 

Scraton and Bramham identify three key features of postwar leisure that are postmodern:

  1. Postmodern leisure is based on consumption 
  2. Leisure is an expression of lifestyle 
  3. Leisure is about the body.
Graphic summarising four key points about leisure in postmodern society.

Postmodern leisure is based on consumption 

Postmodern leisure is based on individuals buying goods and services. 

Modern leisure was discipline, postmodern leisure was more about self indulgence. You do what you want rather than doing what others determine is good for you. Postmodern leisure is like shopping: you indulge yourself in exploration and choice. 

Postmodern Leisure is an expression of lifestyle 

Leisure becomes an expression of a lifestyle rather than a search for self-improvement or relaxation. It becomes a playful means to express who you are. Individualism, privatisation and commercialism undermine rational recreation, games, team spirit, fair play and traditional sporting values. People’s identities become wrapped up in the goods they buy rather than being rooted in their jobs, families or communities. 

Postmodern leisure is about the body

Postmodern leisure involves an increasing concern with the body. In modernity rational leisure was concerned with health and fitness, postmodern leisure is about achieving the desired body shape as an expression of the self. 

Evaluating of postmodern theories of leisure

Scraton and Bamham argue that these changes affect some groups more than others. 

Many people do not have the money to engage in consumption to construct an identity. For those on low incomes shopping is still just a means to buy food and clothes to survive. 

Leisure also remains gendered. Video games and sex tourism. 

Racism may also prevent some ethnic minority groups from accesses certain types of leisure activity. 

For the over 50s clearly enjoying, but for many leisure is limited by resources and still remains linked to work! 

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